Why Ahmadinejad is dismissing high-level Iranian officials

Many critics say a number of personnel changes by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have to do with the growing influence of one of his closest aides, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei.

Yalda Moaiery/Reuters
In this file photo from 2009, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sits with his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, left. Rahim-Mashaei, whose daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son, is said to be behind the recent firings of several prominent Iranian officials.

As a loyal follower of Iran’s hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the young head of the National Youth Organization had every reason to expect his string of high-profile jobs would continue.

Yet Mehrdad Bazrpash has been summarily fired. Reports from Iran early this week confirmed that Mr. Bazrpash, whose ideological beliefs mirror the president's and who has often sharply attacked Mr. Ahmadinejad’s critics, was sacked by the very man that made him.

It is one of a number of abrupt personnel changes by Ahmadinejad – including the firing last week of Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki – that have elicited complaints from allies and critics alike about the president’s “tribal” and imperious style, and the overt influence of one of his closest aides.

Critics point to Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, the presidential chief of staff whose daughter is married to Ahmadinejad’s son, as having too much influence on Ahmadinejad.

But despite widespread criticism of Mr. Rahim-Mashaei, including from Iran’s top clerical authority, Ahmadinejad has appointed him to a host of senior positions. And Rahim-Mashaei's profile has only grown, recently augmented by an official diplomatic visit to Jordan last week, which added to speculation that Ahmadinejad sees him as a future presidential contender. Rahim Mashaei denies the speculation.

His influence was not lost on one Iranian newspaper run by the hard-line militant group Ansar-e Hezbollah, which this week published a satirical cartoon showing Rahim-Mashaei dismissing Ahmadinejad himself from the presidential post.

Bazrpash appears to have been caught out by the power politics. But the sacking of such an evident “true believer” in Iran’s unique Islamic system, a life-long devotee of clerical rule, is raising questions of Ahmadinejad putting politics and loyalty ahead of religious purity.

Ahmadinejad's shifting priorities?

Ahmadinejad “ordered Bazrpash’s dismissal” at a cabinet meeting last Sunday, “following Bazrpash’s criticism of some of Rahim-Mashaei’s interference in the affairs of the National Youth Organization,” according to the Tabnak news website.

The report speculated that Ahmadinejad’s modus operandi was to solve one crisis by creating another one, in the face of biting United Nations and US sanctions, a highly contentious and painful subsidy reform plan, and many other problems.

A ranking member of the Islamic Guidance Ministry was also reportedly fired Friday, along with another forced from his job just days ago.

“Clearly inside Iran, inside conservative circles, everybody is saying its Mashaei…. The consequence has been that even [the official pro-regime newspaper] Kayhan is attacking Ahmadinejad – everybody is,” says Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii.

Rahim-Mashaei has dismissed as a “big lie” accounts that his trip to Jordan was diplomatic overreach. But since the disputed June 2009 election, “it’s clear that at least part of the elite has been pushed out, so the ruling circle has become narrower, in terms of ideological orientation,” says Ms. Farhi.

“All the conflicts that existed have moved inside that smaller circle [and] as this circle has become smaller, the intensity of conflict has intensified and become more vicious,” she adds.

Consolidation of power

Since first assuming the presidency in 2005, Ahmadinejad has raised eyebrows with his rapid-fire changes of ministers, whom he praised as pious and effective during confirmation hearings, only to later axe them as incompetent.

The president says it is his right and duty to change members of his cabinet “team,” like a sports coach. But the recent sackings have sent further waves of surprise through Iran’s conservative elite. After five years in the post, Mr. Mottaki says he was not informed in advance of his dismissal, which was made while he was on an official trip to Senegal to deliver a presidential message.

Kayhan on Tuesday complained that a “bad circle” of advisers around Ahmadinejad led him to abruptly fire Mottaki. Ahmadinejad dismissed all criticism on Thursday in Istanbul, Turkey, saying it was a “little problem,” and that Mottaki was “quoted very badly” when he claimed he had not been forewarned.

Still, a leading parliamentarian has criticized Ahmadinejad’s “tribal management of affairs” with his sackings – among a number of protests by Iranian parliamentarians – and concluded, “Only the wheedlers will be left over,” according to a translation by the EAWorldview Website.

Likewise, a senior ayatollah warned that the president was diluting the pool of faithful ideologues by squeezing out suitable “devotees.”

An ousted loyalist

Among them is Bazrpash, whose youthful patchy black beard has become more full in the five and a half years since Ahmadinejad first plucked him from obscurity as a 20-something university militia leader and tasked him with reforging Iran’s legions of Western-leaning youth.

“With the right tools, we can define what is happiness for the youth…. It’s the job of the state to create and transfer this culture of sacrifice to these youngsters,” Bazrpash told the Monitor in 2005. He had campaigned for Ahmadinejad, though in the presidential office complex where he worked there was little evidence of pen or paper, much less a computer in a country that boasts tens of thousands of Persian-language blogs.

“We are pursuing an advanced … and happy country,” Bazrpash said at the time. “We will introduce the model of happy, young Iranians to the world.”

That wasn’t to be, for he was appointed at the age of 28 – and despite criticism of his inexperience – to be the executive director of a division of the Iranian automaker Pars Khodro, and then its parent company, Saipa.

Two years later in 2009, Ahmadinejad made him vice president for youth affairs, and as head of the National Youth Organization earlier this year Bazrpash launched a website to educate young couples about successful marriage.

Another window on the chaos of the sackings was evident in attempts to name a replacement for Bazrpash. At first, the official IRNA news agency said Farahnaz Torkestani, reportedly a former deputy health minister for student affairs, had accepted the position. But in fact Iranian media reported that she never had taken it and was too ill to do so. A second candidate was named, and on Thursday also refused the post.

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